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Turning STEM to STEAM

January 4, 2018
people looking at things on a table
Graduate students and faculty members in the LAMP program, part of the UW Science Initiative, visited the UW Art Museum this fall to study learning outcomes and object-based learning—bringing science and art together to use in their classrooms.

Science-art partnerships enhance research and outreach.

By Micaela Myers

You hear a lot about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) these days. But for many, the acronym is better spelled STEAM by adding an A for the arts and humanities.

“When we look at our classical civilizations—the Greeks, the Romans, even during the Renaissance—art and science were not separate. Art and science were two sides of the same coin,” says Mary Katherine Scott, program developer for the Global Engagement Office. “We need to get back to it, because that’s how we understand our world. One shouldn’t exist without the other, because if you have science without art,
or vice versa, how are you going to reach everyone? Without that partnership between disciplines, you lose that ability.”

Scott’s research is at the cross-section of anthropology and art history, and she recently created a virtual exhibit using the Shell 3D Visualization Center in the Energy Innovation Center.

Ecosystem science and management Assistant Professor Karen Vaughan believes the arts and humanities help communicate science. “Isn’t the goal of science to advance science and then communicate it?” she says. “If you don’t communicate it, what’s the point of really doing the science?” Vaughan combines her pedology research with her hobby by weaving soil profiles. She earned a NASA education grant
to develop a science communication course and is part of a cross-disciplinary science communication working group.

Visual artist and Assistant Professor Brandon Gellis says: “My research and much of my teaching focus is on the intersection of art, science and technology. Much of my creative research explores how scientific data can be explored in visual ways, through the use of technology, to reach many audiences.”

Among other things, Gellis’ STEAM exhibition, Critical Acceleration, opens at the Loveland Art Museum this March, and he leads the TOPO-X Project via a UW Biodiversity in Art grant and other matching funds. That project involves an all-in-one research trailer with the ability to house scientific instruments, video and audio, outdoor projection equipment, and 3-D-making technology. Collaborators can use the trailer, and Gellis and his students will create biodiversity-related projections that can be shared with the public in outdoor spaces.

Dorothy Tuthill of the UW Biodiversity Institute says the Biodiversity in Art grant started in 2013 and is open to anyone on campus, often drawing collaborations between artists and scientists. “It supports projects that communicate scientific information, personal and cultural responses to biodiversity and artistic representation of the natural world in nontraditional and creative ways,” she says.

The UW Science Initiative also brings in the arts through its training of science professors and Learning Actively Mentoring Program (LAMP). In addition, LAMP provided scholarships for 19 K–16 educators to attend the Wyoming Department of Education STEM conference in Gillette, which has been STEAM focused the last three years, says Rachel Watson, who teaches in microbiology and biochemistry and serves as the interim director of LAMP.

“Art and science are inextricably linked,” Watson says. “Our failure to note that has more to do with our artificial barriers that we put between disciplines than it has anything to do with a lack of inherent integration.”

Visual arts Associate Professor Ashley Carlisle agrees. Part of the 10-member Cross-Pollination Experiment group made up of UW artists and scientists, Carlisle has partnered on a number of projects ( This October, Carlisle and Michael Dillon, a UW associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, put on the exhibition “Beehavior: Extracting the Sweetness” at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center as part of a National Science Foundation grant. They hope the exhibition will travel on to other locations throughout the region.

“We thought the focal point of the show, in particular for kids, was to see through your senses what a bee experiences,” Carlisle says. “All the pieces are interactive, so you can touch the artwork, interact with videos and locate felted bees around the Berry Center, asking the viewer to become the scientist in the field locating different bumblebee species for study.”

Cecilia Aragón, a professor of theater and dance and director or the Latina/o Studies Program, worked with Dillon and Rachael Shaw to put Dillon’s bee research into a theater production. She also helped create theater productions around geology and geophysics Professor Mark Clementz’s research focused on the evolution of whales, as well as geology and geophysics Professor Bryan Shuman’s research on the ice age in Wyoming.

“We see the significance of how scientific knowledge can be communicated through the use of theater,” Aragón says. “It works to understand that the two disciplines deserve equal and fair value in society.”

Visual arts Professor Margaret Haydon has studied endangered sturgeon fish at the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies at Vancouver Island University, in Hungary and with U.S. Fish Wildlife Service biologists on the Yellowstone River—all of which influence her sculptures and teaching—and led her to also study bees and bats. Her advanced-class students now create social commentary pieces.

“I think that scientists need to be able to talk to the public better,” Haydon says, and art can help with that. She sees UW growing in the area of STEAM, including the Sci-Art Symposium—“Re-envisioning the Laboratory”—which was first held in 2016 and will likely be repeated in coming years.

Ed Synakowski, UW’s new vice president for research and economic development, says solving the problems facing Wyoming and the nation will require multidisciplinary partnerships. “The great challenges facing society in Wyoming and beyond—for example, natural resource management, land reclamation, rural health care access and energy distribution, just to name a very few—have a strong multidisciplinary character. Thus solutions will demand a multidisciplinary research response. Marshalling this response will require that our institutions learn how to work internally between disciplines. It also demands a different kind of partnering between institution types. Academia, national labs, industry and government will need to partner in a way they do not today,” he says. “I think the institutions that are going to succeed are going to be ones that have a culture and a set of practices that promote partnership.”

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